As his campaign for the leadership of the Liberal Party kicks off, Justin Trudeau is looking to another politician with a hefty dose of star power for an example of how to use social media to engage the electorate: U.S. President Barack Obama.
Mr. Trudeau spoke at an event Thursday in Toronto hosted by Facebook Canada, on the subject of how social media shapes Canadian politics. Mr. Trudeau said his team is “looking an awful lot at some of the lessons learned” from Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, particularly its use of digital tools to engage voters and especially young people.
“As successful as he was in mobilizing people to come and vote to get him elected, he wasn’t as successful in keeping them mobilized to help him govern, to contribute in an ongoing way to that process,” he told Jordan Banks, managing director of Facebook Canada, who had asked him what he had to learn from the “first social media president.”
Mr. Trudeau said he wanted to use platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to mobilize supporters in an election, but after that to continue using it to “transform the way our democracy works.”
But he did not lay out what the transformation might look like. He does not want to crowdsource policy decisions, he said. Nor does he want the electorate having to regularly e-vote on individual issues. He wants to engage citizens in a “conversation,” something younger voters are demanding, he said.
Social media have proven helpful for Mr. Trudeau in shaping his image – especially in crafting an appearance of authenticity.
“I share my geek side, I put out a quip about this that or the other thing. I interact with people. I engage with it in as authentic a way as possible,” he said.
Instead of seeing a politician stumping for support, Mr. Trudeau wants the electorate to view his public persona as simply an extension of the man he is at home, or having a beer with the buddies. In that sense, his social media strategy is not much different than the time-honoured campaign-trail tradition of photo ops in pubs and at community pancake breakfasts.
But he said the difference is that politicians can no longer fool themselves into thinking they control the conversation. Mr. Trudeau is aware that his every move is being recorded and can instantly be disseminated. Something he said another U.S. politician, Mitt Romney, learned too late.
“I am aware, unlike our Republican counterpart to the south – I never sit in a room any more and don’t assume that somebody’s got a little camera,” he said. “...I find it, instead of being restricting, it’s very empowering. ... Because if you have to pretend to be something you’re not in order to get people to confide in you enough so you can run for them and represent them, you’re going to be miserable because you’re playing a role, and they’re going to be miserable because they don’t have the person they thought they were electing.”
Trudeau on the need for Canada to transition away from a resource-based economy
“We’re outsourcing knowledge jobs around the world ... If we make sure that there’s a proper education framework, we’re giving our young people the tools, they will plug in and contribute to an extent that will allow us to leverage our extraordinary wealth ... the greatest of all our resources is not buried in the ground. It’s our people, ourselves. That transition, instead of sitting back on our resources, but instead jumping forward with them by investing in Canadians and our own creativity by connecting people properly, is I think the way to go.”
On where Research in Motion will be in 5 years
“[Cautious, awkward pause.] Still trying to catch up to Apple.”
On who he would most like to spend an hour with, if given the choice between Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates
“Steve Jobs. Just for the sheer entertainment value, and the amazing conversations ... the man was a genius. A very irascible, unpredictable genius. But what genius isn’t.”
(The following are from a media scrum immediately after the event:)
On comments made by Brian Mulroney to The Globe’s editorial board last week, saying that people who underestimate Mr. Trudeau “do so at their own peril”
“I was flattered by them. I think it was a very nice thing to say by a very classy individual.”
“This government seems to be reacting on a case-by-case, project-by-project basis. That’s no way to run a country. That’s no way to engage with the world in terms of productive business relationships. People need clear frameworks, a clear set of expectations that business can aspire to ... and Canadians need a set of clear answers. This government has been incapable of doing that.”
On how to rebuild the Liberal Party
“You get out there and you walk the streets and you connect with people and meet with them and listen to them ... in places where they haven’t elected a Liberal in decades, like southern Alberta. You connect in terms of saying, I’m here to listen, I’m here to learn. ... There’s an excitement about politics again that is running through everything, because people are hopeful that there is a new way of doing politics that doesn’t pit people against people, region against region.”
On the NDP
“I’d say they have to watch out. I look forward to waving at the NDP as I pass them on the way to the prime ministership.”